One of my more bizarre hobbies is to watch lectures on YouTube on varying nerdy topics such as physics, philosophy, theology, mathematics, or cosmology. Recently I was watching one of Sean Carroll’s lectures on cosmology (great stuff if you are interested) and noticed that YouTube suggested some related videos that may be of interest to me. One of those videos was Carroll’s debate with William Lane Craig, a somewhat famous religious philosopher and debater. They were debating whether cosmology and quantum physics prove the existence of God (Craig asserted the positive while Carroll asserted the negative). It’s a fascinating debate, though I’m generally not a fan of debates because they generally reward rhetorical one-upmanship rather than thoughtful dialogue. Because I watched that video, YouTube suggested I might be interested in other videos debating various religious claims, most of which debated the existence of God. I went on a debate-watching spree and, at the conclusion, remained unpersuaded by either side.
All of that got me thinking about the various arguments put forward for the existence of God, which even to this day are largely drawn from Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways. I’ll outline them here, with each of the descriptions sourced from the Wikipedia article on the subject.
The Argument of the Unmoved Mover
In the world, we can see that at least some things are changing. Whatever is changing is being changed by something else. If that by which it is changing is itself changed, then it too is being changed by something else. But this chain cannot be infinitely long, so there must be something that causes change without itself changing. This everyone understands to be God.
The Argument of the First Cause
In the world, we can see that things are caused. But it is not possible for something to be the cause of itself because this would entail that it exists prior to itself, which is a contradiction. If that by which it is caused is itself caused, then it too must have a cause. But this cannot be an infinitely long chain, so, therefore, there must be a cause which is not itself caused by anything further. This everyone understands to be God.
The Argument from Contingency
In the world we see things that are possible to be and possible not to be. In other words, perishable things. But if everything were contingent and thus capable of going out of existence, then, given infinite time, this possibility would be realized and nothing would exist now. But things clearly do exist now. Therefore, there must be something that is imperishable: a necessary being. This everyone understands to be God.
The Argument from Degree
We see things in the world that vary in degrees of goodness, truth, nobility, etc. For example, sick animals and healthy animals, and well-drawn circles as well as poorly drawn ones. But judging something as being “more” or “less” implies some standard against which it is being judged. Therefore, there is something which is goodness itself, and this everyone understands to be God.
Argument from Final Cause or Ends
We see various non-intelligent objects in the world behaving in regular ways. This cannot be due to chance since then they would not behave with predictable results. So their behavior must be set. But it cannot be set by themselves since they are non-intelligent and have no notion of how to set behavior. Therefore, their behavior must be set by something else, and by implication something that must be intelligent. This everyone understands to be God.
Over the years various people have argued the validity of Aquinas’ Five Ways, with modern theist debaters, such as William Lane Craig, utilizing physical and social sciences to argue their case. Example arguments are:
- The Big Bang proves that some Primary Mover (i.e., God) jump started our universe.
- The human desire for religious traditions is proof of a collective longing for God.
- The fixed speed of light, Plank’s Constant, and other teleological arguments.
While it is interesting to read or hear these various arguments for and against the existence of God, I eventually lose interest. I don’t think these types of arguments will ever definitively prove the existence of God, for if God is to fully condescend to all people, he must be understandable to all. As a result, one shouldn’t need a PhD in philosophy in order to comprehend the existence of God. Instead, the process of obtaining “evidence” of God’s existence will forever remain simple and subjective, and thus will be unpersuasive to materialists, naturalists, or rationalists.
At the end of the day I think the tools to discover God are present within the great religious traditions of the world, for I believe knowledge of God is best obtained through experiential means. Prayer, ritual, liturgy, contemplation, meditation, community, etc., are all tools which have been wielded by adherents of the world’s great religious traditions as a means of discovering God. Science may detect the effects of this process, such as MRI scans of brain activity during contemplative prayer, but science ultimately fails to describe the source of those effects. Instead, the experiential process is similar to the love of a spouse. At first, when courting, one is able to describe to one’s friends the details of one’s attraction to another; however, after 20 years of marriage, one’s feelings for one’s spouse cannot be reduced to words. The cumulative experience of those 20 years brings a familiarity and intimacy that defies description. The behavior of such a couple becomes the evidence of their intimate bond.
And so it is for the believer in God: the life of that believer becomes the evidence of God, and for a Christian, that life is to be centered around the example of Jesus Christ, which is why it is critical that Christians follow the teaching of Jesus to love one another as he loves us. Instead, today we see professed Christians (or a Christian nation) turn away (or abuse through the separation of families) millions of refugees and asylum seekers – the modern-day Lazaruses at our gates. As a result, many will conclude that the evidence so proffered is for a petty God they find unappealing and unpersuasive. If we believers want to argue for the existence of God, we should do it through our behavior – by being the image bearers of the loving God we come to know through experience.
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
John 13:34-35 [Emphasis mine]